From: Libby Quaid, Associated Press
Published December 20, 2004 12:00 AM

Congress Halts Diversion from Conservation Programs

WASHINGTON — David Petty plants corn and soybeans along the contours of his farm's rolling hills, trapping runoff water and reducing erosion. He has a sophisticated watering system on his land in Eldora, Iowa, that keeps his cattle moving so they do not overgraze.


It's an expensive way to farm, but the government pays him to do it because it is good for the water and for wildlife.


"I adjoin the river, so theoretically, I'm the last opportunity to clean it up before it gets in the river," said Petty, whose farm borders the Iowa River for several miles.


Petty gets money from an Agriculture Department program that has become a victim of its success. It is so popular among livestock producers that there is a backlog of applications for grants totaling three times the program's annual spending, which is $1 billion.


But not all the federal money has been spent as Congress intended.


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More than $200 million from the Environmental Quality Incentives program and other "working lands" programs have covered the administrative costs of larger, more expensive conservation programs. That has meant 10 percent less money for the smaller programs.


"The smaller programs, under the way things have worked in recent years, give up a substantial portion of their resources to fund bigger programs. It's just not fair," said Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla.


"It's little brother Peter paying to take care of great big Paul," said Lucas, chairman of a House Agriculture subcommittee on conversation.


Congress has passed legislation that would prevent the Agriculture Department from further diverting the conservation money. The bill awaits President Bush's signature.


At issue was a disagreement between Congress and the Bush administration over whether there was a legal limit on administrative spending on conservation.


Working lands programs pay farmers to change their practices to help the environment. Large programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program, pay farmers to stop farming certain land.


Jim Fisher, a pork producer near Bowling Green in northeast Missouri, is installing an underground line over nearly one-half mile to help him distribute manure more evenly to fertilize his fields. That will help reduce runoff.


"The project I'm doing right now is about a $60,000 project, which on my own, I probably would not have done," Fisher said. "I would have kept using my little manure wagon and hauled off to those fields as far as I could, which is time consuming and expensive."


Like Petty's projects, the money came from the incentives program, which help producers switch to conservation-minded practices. The lack of funds has forced the program to turn away $90 million in requests from farmers in Missouri and $65 million from farmers in Iowa.


The other small conservation programs protect farm and ranch land in high development areas, share the cost of creating wetlands and other habitat and help restore and protect grasslands.


If money had not been siphoned off from the program used by Petty and Fisher, an estimated 1 million acres could have been enrolled, said Scott Faber, a spokesman for the group Environmental Defense.


Often on opposite sides of conservation issues, environmental advocates and farm groups were united in stopping the diversion of money.


Besides delaying good practices that could help the environment, said Iowa farmer Petty, farmers could lose interest in applying for the money.


"They never get accepted, so at some point, they just say, `Heck, I'll quit trying,'" he said.


Source: Associated Press


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